Violence and Mental Health

Mental Health

Tom Starling, E.d.D.

May 15, 2020

I am often asked about violence and acts of violence as it relates to mental illness. Hollywood has done wonders to strengthen and bolster the stigma associated with mental illness.  With no sensitivity to people who have a mental illness, Hollywood regularly portrays patients “escaping” psychiatric hospitals (“insane asylums”) to violently attack people.  In recent decades, they have begun to depict psychiatrists and nurses – persons in the helping professions – as sadistic killers.  While these negative images may result in box office hits, these portrayals don’t make life easier for average people to share about their mood disorders, eating disorders, addictions, bipolar, or trauma.

Research shows that mental Illness is not a good predictor of violence towards others.  The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent.  In fact, 95-97% of homicidal gun violence is committed by people without a mental illness, and research shows that people with a mental illness are four times more likely to be a victim of violent crime.  If mental illness was eliminated tomorrow, gun violence would only go down 4%.

Someone once asked me about gun rights and mental illness.  (MHA has no official stance on gun control.)  They asked if I would give a person with mental illness a gun.  Statistically, 1 in 5 people have a diagnosable mental illness each year.  From whom in the military would I take a gun?  They protect me!

Unfortunately, mental illness is a predictor of suicide.  Depression, substance use disorder, and similar mental illnesses have a strong correlation with suicides.  Research studies show that 60-83% of all gun-related deaths are not homicides or accidental deaths but are suicides.  I always ask myself why handgun classes don’t spend 60-83% of their time focused on suicide prevention.

When I talk to young adults, they are surprised to learn that hate, rage, and threatening behaviors are not considered mental illnesses.  There is no diagnosis of a mental illness if you are a perpetrator of domestic violence, a terrorist who crashes planes into buildings, or a bigot who hates people because of their race or ethnicity.  However, all these attributes are predictors of violence, and past violence is a very good predictor of future violence.

Making it easier to commit people to involuntary treatment will do little or nothing to prevent any violent acts, including gun violence.  Instead, policymakers should address the root causes of violence.  As a completely separate issue, lawmakers should also provide for prevention and early intervention of mental health conditions because it’s the right thing to do, not because it is a solution to violence of any kind.

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